Sunday, March 22, 2009

Your business card please!

I originally wrote this entry on August 3, 2004.

I've often wondered what sorts of rights U.S. citizenship actually grants me.

Well, in the 2004 Democratic Party primary elections for party nomination to the presidential elections, I finally registered to vote. To my surprise, I discovered that by the time the primaries got to California, the state with the largest electoral votes, the decision had already been made. In other words, the votes in California counted for next to nothing. Three of the five candidates had already been sent to the dust bin of electoral politics before Californians had a chance to vote. All this meant that Californians had a much reduced set of options than people in New Hampshire or Connecticut. (I don't have anything against those two states. I just don't think voters in other states should get a raw deal in a national election because of some strategic setup that multiplies the force of some votes and reduces to nothing the votes of others. Of course, one may also argue that California has a more representative mix of population and should get to vote first in primaries.)

I had had enough of these thoughts.

After all, this was the first time I had registered to vote and maybe I simply didn't comprehend the subtleties of primary elections even if I had lived in the U.S. for the last 25 years of my life.

Then I said to myself, may be it is rights to privacy, to travel and to remain silent for which I should be grateful.

However, reality has proven me off the mark again. In the last 3 years, I have traveled some 15 times out of the country, mostly on business and three times on vacation. My vacations have always included a short visit to Iran, this time to climb the Sabalan mountain.

In all these 15 times but one, my luggage and myself have been made subject to "random" searches. The single exception occurred when no one else was being searched, apparently in the embarrassing aftermath of the Iraq prison fiasco.

I wonder where the "random" in the "random search" comes from.

(Perhaps my sensitivity to all this is because both for my M.S. and Ph.D. dissertation work, I had to learn quite a bit of statistics and write code using various random number generators whose generative behavior I also had to analyze.)

The last time I was subjected to "random" search was yesterday at SFO.

I had just left my family in Salzburg for my daughters' German summer camp, had traveled from Salzburg to Wiesbaden in my brother's car in about 6 hours of non-stop driving, had slept only 4 hours and taken the plane from Frankfurt to SFO.

I was picked out of the line by a female Customs agent and politely (a first, I would say) asked to go to "isle 5" on the far left corner where "random" searches were being performed. Being subjected to a "random" search had begun to infuriate me after it had happened 4 times in a row, but after 15 times in a row, one can only get used to it.

A man from India and another young European man were sent right behind me.

The customs agent examining me on isle 5 asked several questions. I leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps with my responses.

  • "Where do you work?"
  • "No, I mean which company do you work for?"
  • "What does Sun do?" This question followed by several winks and a "I was just kidding."
  • "Can you please give me one of your business cards?"
  • "Yes, we do ask everyone for their business cards. See, here's one." She showed me one with no e-mail addresses or phone numbers !
  • "Don't get upset. We are just trying to help."
  • "Whose violin is this?"
  • "I don't know anything about violins. Does your daughter hold a first chair in the El Camino Youth Symphony?"

This was just a sample of the questions. The search of my bags uncovered tapes, VCDs, books and other publications in English, Turkish, Chinese, Persian, and German. For example, they included a German book on coaching soccer. (I'm going to be a soccer coach for one of my daughters' teams this fall.)

During the interrogation, when I felt my heart pumping, I tried to calm myself. I obliged and laughed throughout as I made fun of the "randomness" of the search. "You don't need to apologize," I said. "This happens every single time."

In any case, as I surrendered my Sun business card, I wondered, with a certain feeling of company loyalty, whether it was my right to tell them that I did have business cards but that I would refuse to give it to them. I don't particularly like strangers to have my business cards even if they are U.S. Customs agents. I'd like to think that I have a right to give my business card to whomever I wish and only in cases where it is a matter of company business.

I left the airport wondering if the Customs was being used as training ground for interrogators or whether the U.S. Customs had contracted out interrogation. The interrogator this time, unlike all previous times, was quite "professional" and knew what she was doing. In any case, as an ex-journalist, I'd very much like to find out the answers to all these questions but I have a regular job and have no time for such investigations.

I wonder why no newspapers write about the plight of people going through these sorts of interrogation. Perhaps it is all for the good of national security.

In any case, I'd very much like to know what my rights actually are, and what the rights of the Customs agents performing the searches are, or to be more precise, where their rights of search and interrogation of individuals and U.S. citizens end. I have not read any news reports that answer these questions.

Most of this will go silent because it is better to go on than to talk about it.

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